Illinois authorities systematically violate the rights of thousands of parolees by sending them back to prison for alleged violations in hurried, convoluted hearings -- often with no lawyers available for guidance, a new class-action lawsuit alleges.
The 21-page suit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago late Tuesday by prisoners' rights advocates names the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, the Illinois Department of Corrections and Gov. Pat Quinn as defendants.
"(Authorities) have, in effect, created a procedural vortex from which people on parole cannot escape," the lawsuit says. It adds parolees are frequently left to fend for themselves in a "revocation process (that) is Byzantine and complex."
The new lawsuit alleges that more than 10,000 improper revocation hearings happen each year.
"Parole revocation hearings in Illinois are a sham," it says, noting that hearings typically last five minutes or less and often result in a parolee's return to prison.
A Department of Corrections spokesman said the agency hadn't been sent a copy of the complaint and "cannot comment on a complaint we have not seen." A spokesman for the Prisoner Review Board also declined to comment, and messages seeking comment from Quinn's office weren't immediately returned.
Parole issues have haunted the Quinn administration. A scandal involving the early release of inmates to lessen the prison population in 2009 almost cost Quinn re-election in 2010. He halted that program, contributing to a prison population that's reached historic levels -- almost 50,000 today.
The Chicago-based Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and Uptown People's Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of three named plaintiffs, Moises Morales, Montreal Thomas and Jaoquin Rocha -- all of whom are former parolees now being held in custody. The lawsuit says 30,000 parolees are also potentially subject to such hearings.
Forty percent of those entering prison each year are people who allegedly violated parole, said Alan Mills, legal director of the Uptown People's Law Center.
"Because the system provides almost no procedural protections to parolees, there is no mechanism to quickly identify and release those parolees who simply do not need to be in prison," he said. "Reforming this broken system will go a long way toward addressing overcrowding in Illinois' prisons."
Prison officials have wide discretion about whether they think a parolee has violated the rules and whether to initiate the process that could send the person back to prison. A single positive drug test, for instance, could be seen as a violation, or parole officials might allow the ex-con to stay on the street if he attends counseling.
If state revocation procedures are started, the lawsuit says they typically violate due-process guarantees, including by not ensuring parolees have access to state-funded legal counsel. Instead, parolees -- many of whom are high school dropouts or who have mental health issues -- must make snap legal decisions that can unnecessarily land them back behind bars, it adds.
"The forms provided to parolees that are intended to give notice of the charges leveled against them are dense and incomprehensible -- the form's complex language and confusing design far exceed the comprehension of the average parolee," the lawsuit says.